A Four-Point Plan for Reviving the U.S. Role in Asia
If at first the Obama administration fumbled its announcement in 2011 that the United States was “pivoting” to Asia, the “rebalance” to Asia, as it was rebranded, has been a central pillar of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and its merits are arguably beyond dispute. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for roughly one third of global trade, more than half the world’s population and will continue to be the locus of the world’s attention in the twenty-first century.
The next administration, whether Republican or Democrat, would do well to build on President Obama’s rebalance policy, rather than toss out the entire tool kit. However, the next president will almost certainly seek to define his or her foreign policy with a fresh start by launching new initiatives and distancing their rhetoric from that of the Obama administration.
Build from the TPP
The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is an unprecedented and expansive agreement, bridging the United States and Japan, the largest and third largest economies in the world, respectively, as well as three Southeast Asian nations, Vietnam, Singapore and Brunei. The deal also includes Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand and Peru. Both Indonesia and the Philippines have also signaled strong interest in the TPP, to which Singapore is a signatory negotiating member, and will continue to be strategic partners, economically and otherwise. The next administration should embrace the TPP in order to anchor the United States in the Asian region and to cement the norms of free trade cherished by the United States.
While nearly all of the candidates have rejected the TPP as it currently stands, it seems that their positions stem more from domestic political concern—however misguided (polls have shown that far more Americans support the passage of TPP than oppose it)—rather than sound trade policy. Ratifying the TPP will bring modest but measurable economic benefits to Americans, and it will entrench the U.S. in Asia at this critical point in time.
Balance Outreach with Rights
Second, an area of importance the Obama administration has neglected in favor of enhancing bilateral multilateral relations with autocratic nations such as Malaysia and Brunei, is human rights. The next U.S. president should double down on the rebalance but inject American values of civil society and freedom of expression by emphasizing human rights in its outreach to repressive leaders in the region.
Focus on Combatting Terrorism
The United States should collaborate with regional partners continues against terrorism. In January, the bombing and shootout in Jarkarta, Indonesia, that was attributed to the Islamic State (IS), signals a worrisome new attempt by IS to lay down roots in Southeast Asia by liaising with local terrorist cells such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Indonesia and Islamic resistance groups in Southern Thailand and the Philippines. Regional powers such as Indonesia and Singapore, and our ally the Philippines, whose Supreme Court just approved an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States, are important partners in the effort to combat terrorism in Asia. The Philippines, in particular, permitting the rotation of U.S. troops on its bases, will be vital to American interests in the region.
Manila has also mounted a serious legal case against Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, bringing the most credible and potentially decisive arbitration on China’s efforts to construct and militarize a number of islands to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The ICJ is expected to make its ruling in the first half of this year—the decision could set the stage for either diffusion of escalation of conflict in contested waters.
Singapore, for its part, boasts the state-of-the-art Information Fusion Center at Changi Naval Base, which collates information sharing among thirty-five countries and enhances maritime domain awareness in the region, making it a crucial partner for American intelligence collection in important areas such as piracy, terrorism, and maritime security in Asia. Indonesia, a progressive democracy with a good track record combating terrorism, has proven that moderate Islam is the best weapon against violent extremism.
Downplay the Current Mindset of Rivalry